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Bad France

25th January 2018

After Christmas we went on a rollicking adventure through Northern France, visiting the Auvergne, the Loire Valley, Brittany and Normandy. We saw an incredible amount of history, played games, read and ate car pique-niques of baguettes and jam and apples. By the end all that road food had us farting like puppies - I imagined our little hatchback tootling along the highway with comic-strip type wavy stink-lines rising from it. It was a fantastic trip but after two weeks I was desperate for my own bed, my bathtub and a leeeetle personal space.

I also arrived home with head lice (French women might not get fat but the head lice are fucking massive) and a raging sinus infection. This left me with no sense of smell (blessing in disguise; see above re car-farting)but it was harder to see the sunny side of the constant face-headache.

We got back just in time for la rentrée, the start of the new school term. A storm was raging on that first morning, and the flood warnings for our riverside town were high. We ran through rain, thunder and lightning, and I slipped over twice on the cobblestones, painfully. When a child whinged that their trousers were wet I demanded ‘Where’s your backbone?’ It was all a little gothic.

The week continued in that vein. Every task was just a little harder than it should have been, the house was in a state of accusatory chaos and a cocktail of estrogen and resentment percolated lightly in my veins.

On Wednesday morning we raced against time to make it to school before the bell. Halfway there, I stopped to button Georgie’s coat and realised she wasn’t wearing any pants. I looked at her woolly stockings, gusset halfway to her knees. ‘Where are your trousers George?’ I asked. ‘I took them off,’ she said. ‘They were itching me.’

‘But you can’t just wear stockings, George!’ I said. ‘Really…’ she said thoughtfully, mentally adding stockings-are-not-pants to the arbitrary list of world rules in her six-year old head. I imagined the faces of the teachers and the tidily-put-together kids when George unburdened herself of her overcoat and strode in, trouserless, to take her seat in class. We’re already weird, already the feral Cheryls of the schoolyard. I couldn’t let George become No-Knickers McIntosh.

‘Back! Back!’ I shouted. We raced home, and hurried George into a pair of jeans before setting off for school at top speed. In France, parents are not allowed past the gate - it’s a terrorism protocol. Behind those gates is an unknown land - a tougher place, where teachers frequently shout at the children, and everybody eats chocolate for their ‘recreation’.(Lots of teeth to match.) It’s the opposite of home, at our little beachside primary school, where you can’t turn around without getting poked in the eye with a parent or a carrot stick.

We’ve often scraped in by the skin of our teeth but we’ve never arrived after the gates have been locked. We raced up to see the children in their lines ready to enter the school. We were just minutes late. ‘We missed it!’ we all gasped. ‘We’ll have to ring the bell!’

So we did. And then we rang it again. And waited. I made a few jokes about how the children might get the day off school. I thought the secretary must be away from her desk. So we rang it again. A face appeared at the window above the gate and then disappeared again.

‘That’s my teacher,’ Ivy said. Her teacher is the school principal. She is frankly terrifying.

‘So she saw us?’ I said. ‘Oh yeah,’ said Ivy.

‘Curiouser and curiouser’, I said. We rang the bell again. It had been about ten minutes now, and I was really confused.

A child’s face appeared briefly at the window.

‘It’s because it’s buzzing in my classroom,’ Ivy said.

‘What?’ I said.

‘When the gate rings Madame B goes to the window and calls ‘what is it?’ and then the gate monitor gets to press the buzzer,’ Ivy said.

I’m slow, but it was starting to filter in.

‘So Madame B knows we’re here, but she’s not going to open the gate?’ I said to Ivy.

‘Doesn’t look like it,’ Ivy said.

‘And she’s not going to tell us that she’s not going to open the gate?’ I said.

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Rachelle!’ calls G, a school Mum friend passing by. I went to her.

‘Non, c’est ne possible,’ she says. ‘No school.’

In Franglish we established that the rule is that if the children are late, they are not allowed to enter. No reason is possible; no excuse allowed. G shrugged.

There is an intercom, but no message has come through it. There is a window above us, but the teacher has not chosen to use it. Instead she’s left us on the street for fifteen minutes, buzzing the bell like fools. I’m dumbfounded, I’m pissed off, but mostly, I am prickling with humiliation as we all slink away. The children are quiet. They can see that I am upset, and it’s always confusing when something has tilted the equilibrium of your parent.

Stern-Mummy France has let me know my place and yes, it worked - I will make sure I am never late again, but also, I was sorely tempted to let the teacher know that in the vernacular of my old country she should eat a large salty bag of dicks.

It was annoying but not problematic for me to take the kids home again. But what if I had to go to a workplace? A trip away? An unchangeable appointment? What if we were late due to am asthma attack, a nosebleed, a car breakdown, rather than just a small child’s wardrobe malfunction? It’s the fact that nobody opened that window and spoke to us that hurt the most. I felt very, very far from Australia.

At lunchtime, despite our unplanned day off, we still had to return to school to pick up a couple of kids - we had organised what would turn out to be the Playdate From Hell.

The kids spoke only French so we were all about Franglish and Google Translate, which is tiring. They also all wanted to play Cache-Cache, or hide-and-seek which, whatever, be happy, but also, great, go through every corner of my house, wild child tribe. Le sigh.

Midway through the interminable afternoon, the doorbell rang. It was Monsieur F, an old man who, twenty years ago, owned the chateau in town where Keith sister worked for a period.

Monsieur F is lovely, and possesses the most delightful giggle I have ever had the pleasure of hearing, but he only speaks French, of course. I went up the winding stairs, which with every minute became longer and more Escher-esque, putting out a few kid-fires along the way, to make tea and biscuits and carry them downstairs on a tray. Then Keith and I visited with Monsieur F, politely, and in French - ‘And how are your daughters? And are they living in the town?’ while five children barreled in and out of the room and we all shouted ‘Ferme la porte!’

My headache was growing. Throughout the course of the afternoon one child smashed a glass and didn’t tell me until I found shards all over the kitchen, and another started trying to set off fireworks in the lounge room (really).

‘Non! Non non non!’ This word is the same shouted by a mother in both languages. Luckily.

The playdate ended, as even the most tiring playdates will, but the week rolled in in the same vein. Everything was hard. I missed the sun, the Australian sense of humour, the school system. I missed the food, my friends, my Mum. I missed easy interactions with strangers. I missed joking. I missed being understood. I missed my house. I missed IView. I missed SBS On Demand. I missed Asian flavours.

I missed coffee.

The women at the supermarket-cafe (yes! The glamour! C’est vrai!) laughed at me one day. They were annoyed. I still don’t know why. My face? My accent? Did I stand in the wrong spot and break some unspoken rule of supermarket-bakery etiquette? ‘Le anglaise’ one of them muttered and the other shook her head.

‘THIS IS NOT A COFFEE, LADIES’ I wanted to tell them as my ears got hot and they served me a lukewarm cup of dishwater. ‘I MAY BE THE ENGLISH IDIOT BUT THIS IS NOT A COFFEE!’

I didn’t of course. Because this week every French word I knew had left my head. I felt every deficiency in my skill-set as I said ‘bonjour’ when I meant ‘merci’ and ‘enchante’ when I meant ‘au revoir’. Every sentence melted into word salad. ‘Nos/vos/votre/tes/mes/ses/son/sa/teur/mon/ma/mes’. WHAT IS HAPPENING.

In a small town, it’s impossible to avoid encounters with people you know, and when every encounter is in a language in which, at best, you are an idiot, and worst, rude; it’s deflating.

I read a quote that said ‘If you encounter an asshole in the morning, you’ve encountered an asshole. If you encounter them all day, you are the asshole.’ This gave me pause as I had already encountered two assholes by then, and it wasn’t yet lunchtime.

I put all our socks in a bag and then I threw out the bag. Don’t ask how. Because I am special. Ted lost his overcoat - the second one he’s lost. How? I rail. Who loses their actual coat? But then, who puts all the family’s socks in a bag and throws it out with the rubbish? Genetics. The truth hurts. I cuddle Ted. He’s doing his best, and we are expecting a huge amount from him.

All the children actually coped with la rentrée amazingly well. Much, much better than me. To reward them for doing a great job with their first week back at school, on Friday afternoon I made them the meal they have all been asking for: Doctor Who’s favourite snack, fish fingers and custard. They deserved it, even thought I couldn’t look, and then they watched Doctor Who while cuddling under the fluffy leopard-skin blanket we call Big Bertha.

That was the week that was, but it’s over now. My sinus infection is on the improve - finally - and I am not so fragile. I can handle being the village idiot again. My mistakes are funny. A man – middle-aged, stocky, fag tucked in the side of his mouth - walked past me wearing a t-shirt that read ‘Man I Feel like a Woman’. Maybe he was a Shania Twain fan. Maybe he was an ironic hipster. Maybe he was the Casanova of Sommieres, advertising his availability to the lucky ladies he passed. But I choose to believe that he had no idea what his shirt read and that makes me happy. The rain has stopped, the sun has come out, and I like France again.

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